I last attended the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (ttff) in 2010, when the first film I produced had its world premiere at the festival. In the years since, I’ve watched from a distance as the festival has grown in size and stature, becoming a fixture on the regional festival circuit. So when the festival announced that its 2015 edition would see the launch of two important new initiatives, I felt the time was right for a return to the twin island republic.
ttff creates a unique atmosphere. Named one of the 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the world by MovieMaker magazine, it’s known for a well-organised but laid-back atmosphere and for its party vibe once the business of watching films is done for the day. But ten years after it first appeared on the regional landscape, ttff announced its intention to be seen as a key link in the business of film in the Caribbean.
The Caribbean Film Mart (CFM) and Caribbean Film Database (CFDb) were launched to much fanfare on September 24 and together represent a great step forward for the regional film industry. Creative Director of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, Emilie Upczak, explained the rationale behind the initiatives.
"The Caribbean Film Mart and Database were created out of the ttff’s 10 years of experience as exhibitors of independent Caribbean film in which we realised there was a gap both in the preservation and documentation of Caribbean films generally and in the level of support and exposure filmmakers working in the region were getting. We conceived of the Mart and the Database as two interwoven initiatives that would work in tandem to bolster the Caribbean Film Industry."
Caribbean Film Mart
The inaugural Caribbean Film Mart, which received over 100 applications, gave 15 selected filmmakers the opportunity to present their projects in development and pre-production to 30 sales agents, distributors and representatives of film funds from the US, Canada, Europe and Latin America. The filmmakers were drawn from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Curacao, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Guyana and Guadeloupe. Prior to their one-on-one meetings, they received expert advice on formulating their pitches from Canadian Jan Miller, an international consultant and trainer who runs pitch events all over the world.
Robert Maylor, Director of International Sales at Magnolia Pictures and the son of Jamaican parents, explained the company’s interest in the inaugural CFM.
"As a company Magnolia has always championed emerging talent from diverse regions, so this was a natural fit. The prospects are immense…There is a vast mythology that is wholly untapped here. Those raised in the culture can tell a dozen tales that could be adapted to create a range of projects from children’s fairy tales to mainstream dramas and on to voodoo and obeah genre/horror pics."
He also praised the quality of the projects presented by the 15 selected CFM participants, while acknowledging the challenges that regional filmmakers face.
"While there’s no monolithic Caribbean experience – each storyteller has been informed by the unique experience of their homelands – I was most impressed by the sensitivity and cinematic vision for expressing universal themes of the human experience. If there is any weakness, it is insufficient access to mentorship and funding to help get projects off the ground – but that is something common to nascent filmmakers, especially in emerging markets."
In speaking to some of my filmmaker colleagues selected for the CFM they gave the event top marks for filling those gaps and underlined the significance of the opportunity to present their projects to global industry professionals on home soil.
Ian Harnarine, whose feature version of his award-winning short, Doubles With Slight Pepper, goes into production in Trinidad in November, felt his project was boosted by its inclusion in CFM. "The Caribbean Film Mart was incredibly important in opening up the world (literally!) to the project. To meet face to face with people from Sundance Institute, Tribeca Film Institute, Norwegian South Film Fund, World Cinema Support etc makes the opportunities available to me very real."
Barbadian producer Jason Jeffers, whose Haiti-set short Papa Machete was a Sundance and TIFF selection in 2014 and which is also being developed into a feature, agreed. "This could really be a game changer for the Caribbean film community. Personally, I’m coming out of my meetings and pitch sessions at the CFM with a renewed vigor and sharper focus for Papa Machete—and all of our projects, actually. It was the best kind of boot camp."
"It just doesn’t get any better than this for someone working on their first and second features. ttff knows how to host a well-organized festival, the Film Mart was top-notch and appropriate for the Caribbean region. It felt like ‘home’." said Mason Richards, a US-based writer/director with roots in Guyana whose feature film, The Seawall is in pre-production.
Artist and experimental filmmaker, Trinidadian-American Vashti Harrison, whose short Sixteen had its world premiere at this year’s festival, found a welcoming environment for her genre of work. "I was unsure of my place in an environment usually meant for traditional mainstream films. But I got incredible feedback and support from the industry representatives across the board. Moreover, I believe some of the connections I have made to be lasting and very fruitful and that is due specifically to the unique environment that ttff fosters. "
That unique environment provided plenty of access and networking opportunities not just for the participants in the CFM but other attendees like me who were able to approach industry professionals outside of panels and sessions, during the nightly Filmmaker Lounge and the many social outings on the festival’s agenda. Larger markets and events are costly to attend and leading professionals can be hard to access given the sheer numbers of aspiring writers, directors and producers vying for their attention. By bringing top professionals from organisations as diverse as Sundance Institute, Array, Kino Lorber and Ventana Sur, to the intimate setting of the island festival, the organisers put us all in close proximity to people we would otherwise find it hard to meet.
Caribbean Film Database
In a region separated by a sea and several different languages, and with few opportunities for film screenings in commercial spaces outside of festivals, it can feel like we’re working in silos unaware of the larger Caribbean film scene. Add to that films being made by members of the wider Caribbean diaspora in the US, UK, Canada and beyond, and it becomes even more challenging.
The other ttff project launched this year, the Caribbean Film Database, is a web resource cataloguing over 500 feature films made in the region in the last 15 years from the English-speaking, Dutch, French and Spanish-Speaking Caribbean. The site, which is available in English, French and Spanish, also places a spotlight on Caribbean Women in Film, Classic Films showcasing older, pioneering work, and has a Short Film Corner as well. In its resources section, it lists regional film festivals, film commissions and associations and film schools and a bibliography of academic writing on Caribbean film and filmmakers.
With a quick scan of the CFDb it is both sobering and encouraging to realise that so many works have been produced in the region in less than two decades. Many of them have been rarely screened outside of festivals. This tool will certainly make it easier for distributors, broadcasters, programmers and academics to discover and purchase Caribbean films, and it also does the important work of documenting and demonstrating the rich filmmaking history and culture that can inspire future generations of image makers.
Upczak was pleased overall with the reception of both the Mart and Database.
"The launch of Mart and Database literally couldn’t have gone any better. We have now raised the bar for ourselves and our partners working in the region and coming out of this year’s festival there is a greater sense of a collective Caribbean, one that encourages, collaborates and works together to create a world stage for Caribbean film. The Mart itself was successful in large part because the filmmakers were serious, professional, enthusiastic and worked with the ttff to be great brand ambassadors for the Caribbean. The industry present could also tell they stepped into a very dynamic moment in Caribbean film history and I think many of them feel privileged to be some of the first to be exposed and have access to our filmmakers."
The Caribbean Film Mart and Caribbean Film Database are both products of a partnership that includes the Fundación Global Democracia y Dessarollo from the Dominican Republic, the Association for the Development Of Art Cinema And Practice in Guadeloupe, the Foundation of New Latin American Cinema from Cuba, and the Festival Régional et International du Cinéma de Guadeloupe. Co-financing for the projects was provided by the ACPCultures + Programme funded by the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States.
Given the positive reviews for the inaugural Mart, it would seem certain that a second edition is on the cards. However, in a region with very little supportive infrastructure for filmmaking, and multiple demands for scarce resources, the funding for these initiatives is unclear. CFM is obviously a costly and complex event to undertake. For Emilie Upczak and the team at ttff, the work of securing its future begins right away.
"My hope is that the Caribbean Film Mart and Database will continue and that it will be implemented in association with our existing partners and given support by the Trinidad & Tobago Government as well as other regional agencies and funds."
Those of us who experienced the opportunities for exposure provided by these new initiatives hope so too.
Lisa Harewood is an independent filmmaker from Barbados. Her debut short, Auntie, can be seen as part of NBPC’s AfroPop Web Shorts. The film and its transmedia project, Barrel Stories, deal with the issue of children separated from parents by migration. Follow Lisa on Twitter @islandcinephile.